Charlotte Coleman: Gay bar superstar: lesbian entrepreneur's 45 years of success
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Charlotte Coleman's bars grew from the harassment of the 1950s. But the unintended consequence of losing a job was that she wasn't just a bar owner: she had such business acumen that some of her bars still exist till today.
When we think of our community's lesbian bar owners, it's natural that we think of the ones who owned women's bars, like Rikki Streicher, Peg Clark and Ollie Olivera. But Coleman was a bar owner of a different stripe. For much of the more than forty years that she was in the bar business, she owned bars which were, in large part, gay men's bars.
Coleman was originally from Rhode Island, where she served in the Coast Guard and received an honorable discharge. After serving, she took a train trip around the United States and arrived in San Francisco in the late 1940s.
Once here, she initially worked for the Internal Revenue Service. After working there ten years, she was called into an office and presented with a four-inch-high file of notes. Her phone had been tapped, her mail was read and she had been followed by investigators from the IRS.
Unable to prove that she was lesbian, the reason for her dismissal was 'association with persons of ill repute.' But the up side of this firing was that she was given the money she had contributed to a retirement account, which was around $1,000 ($9,000 in 2020 dollars).
Coleman used that money to buy The Blind Mouse, a gay restaurant at 600 Front Street, and opened her first bar there, The Front, in 1958. It was also her only women's bar. The bar had a stage and a piano, and she had male and female impersonators as well as pantomime acts.
From the very beginning of her Bay Area life, Coleman was involved in community politics. In an interview with Nan Alamilla Boyd in Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, Del Martin said:
"During the 1960 (Daughters of Bilitis) convention she closed down one night so we could have a party at her place."
Part of Coleman's reasoning for opening a bar in the downtown produce district was that it was relatively deserted at night and would escape the notice of police. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Faced with multiple specious morals charges, Coleman lost her license and The Front closed in 1962.
The same year she opened The Golden Cask (1725 Haight St.). In an interview with Boyd which does not appear in Wide Open Town (but is held at the GLBT Historical Society), Coleman explained how the license for the bar was in Peggy Forster's name.
"By this time I had to put it in Peggy's name because I'd lost my license at The Front; I was with her at that point."
Coleman told Boyd her logic for opening a gay men's bar.
"The women got into so many fights, pulling hair and dumping beers over each other. I always was in the middle trying to break things up. And I really didn't make any money either, so I decided that was a lot of fun, but I couldn't make a living. The next one was really a man's bar."
The police harassment did not stop with the move, however. In an oral history with the GLBT Historical Society, Coleman said, "We had our grand opening of the restaurant and hundreds of people were there. And they came up with the police cars and paddy wagon. Peg was behind the bar and they came in and they arrested her. And what was it? She had a parking ticket that was about three years old that they were holding for that night."
These tactics did not have the intended effect, however. Asked by the Bay Area Repoter's Mary Richards in 1996 if she was frightened by the police tactics, Coleman responded, "No. I was mad."
The harassment did not stop Coleman and Forster from supporting the community. In March, 1965, The Golden Cask held a benefit for the Council on Religion and the Homosexual to cover the legal expenses for the ministers arrested at the benefit earlier that year. And it didn't harm their business either. In an interview for Boyd's book, Streicher commented that The Golden Cask always did good business. Forster kept the restaurant till 1972.
In 1967, Coleman and Forster purchased The Mint (originally 1948 Market St., now 1942 Market St.). Originally encompassing both the restaurant and the bar currently at that location, The Mint was initially best known as a steakhouse. But Coleman's Mint is perhaps best remembered for the tricycle races, which they began on Memorial Day 1972.
Coleman had assigned various holidays to employees for ideas to stimulate business. Les Balmain came up with the idea for the races. Teams of two people (often in costume) would push the tricycles from bar to bar throughout the city, where they received complimentary drinks.
The event was a charity fundraiser as well, with money going to Guide Dogs For the Blind initially and later to many AIDS charities. The races lasted until 1993, well past 1975, when Coleman sold The Mint.
In November 1972, the following item appeared in the "Mama Knows" column of the Kalendar: "Another bar will be opening where the Twin Peaks is now. I'm told they want it to be a people bar. Not Gay, not Straight, just a nice place to see how the other half lives."
This was the first word of the Twin Peaks, which Forster bought with Mary Ellen Cunha and silent partner Coleman. The "people bar" notion didn't last long, perhaps because of the bar's location on Castro Street. By May 1973, Vector, an article on a S.I.R. tour of the Castro for U.C. Davis students noted:
"Some of them were rather surprised that Gay people would be as open about themselves to congregate in a bar like the Twin Peaks, because its windows were wide open to the public."
The Twin Peaks was already known as a gay bar with its windows open to the world in 1973. Coleman's association with the bar lasted till 2003, when Forster and Cunha sold the bar to the current owners.
The list of bars that Coleman was involved in goes well beyond these notable places.
She owned Gilmore's (1068 Hyde) from 1978 to 1993, the cabaret Charpe's (131 Gough) from 1989 to 2000 and numerous other bars, including The Trapp (72 Eddy), Blue & Gold (136 Turk), the Old Mission Inn (507 Valencia) and The Answer (1640 Main Street, Redwood City).
Coleman was also on the board of the Tavern Guild, the treasurer of the First Gay Games, and was a founding member of Atlas Savings & Loan, the first gay bank in the world.
Coleman died on November 13, 2015 at age 92, but her legacy lives on, as witnessed by the continued existence of both The Mint and Twin Peaks. She overcame the police harassment of bars in the 1950s and '60s and continued to contribute to her community for the 45 years she was a bar owner in San Francisco.